Monday, February 07, 2005

When we weren't connected

From a news report yesterday on the Delhi Govt banning cellphones in govt-aided schools:

...students are not amused. "How do I call and tell my mother when to pick me up?" says one... "I gave my son a phone so he could contact me in need," wails a mother.

Schoolkids who get panic attacks when deprived of cellphones. Their stricken parents. Can the world really have changed so much in such little time? I’ve blogged on these lines elsewhere but it’s worth repeating for anyone born after, say, 1984, who grew up with this sort of thing. (Incidentally, wouldn’t Orwell have been bemused by this unforeseen corruption of "Big Brother is Watching" into "Mama is Listening, my Baby"?) Anyhow, here’s some The Way We Were reminiscing from someone who passed out of school a decade ago.

I travelled by school bus for most of my schooling years. When the last bell for the day sounded, we streamed out of the gates and there, waiting for us in single formation, were the numbered vehicles. Except maybe once every 3 or 4 months when a bus was late, for whatever reason - at such times the lot of us would wait near the school gates under the supervision of a teacher/senior. A delay of up to, say, 20 minutes, was manageable, it was understood that parents wouldn’t fly into a panic at home. But if the bus was going to be delayed for longer (we rarely knew for sure, bus drivers didn’t have cellphones in those days either), we would be permitted to go to the phone in the hallway outside the headmaster’s office and make a reassuring call home.

The phone, in one corner of the spacious hall, was an archaic instrument once used by Graham Bell to contact his assistant in the next room; one spoke into the upper mouthpiece and then quickly put one’s ear to the same part of the instrument. I’m sure there were other, more modern-looking instruments elsewhere in the building, but this is the only memory I retain of a phone in school, and its very archaicness, its otherworldness, still represents the idea that one wasn’t meant to use a phone during one’s time there. That for those few hours you were to be completely cut off from your home. (One of my most distinctly unsettling early memories is the sound of my mother’s voice filtering through that ancient phone into a hall that was never supposed to be touched by a family member’s presence.)

That phone’s dial, by the way, was incredibly unwieldy and difficult to operate, which was again symptomatic of what a strange thing you were doing, calling home from school; a lot of effort had to be put in if you wanted to accomplish something like this. Today’s kids by contrast yank out a tiny rectangular object and press exactly two keys to make a call (assuming they have their parents on speed-dial).

Anyway, thus speaks a 27-year-old who, incidentally, is as addicted to his own cellphone today as any youngster who’s never known a world without one. As Shamya says in this post, in some ways there’s a greater disconnect between our generation (the mid-to-late 1970s born) of urban Indians and those who are 6-7 years younger, than there was between us and the generation that preceded us. Normally I’d be wary of that theory, since every generation probably feels the same way, but in this case there’s certainly something to it. It’s an indisputable fact, for instance, that cellphones and the Internet have widely become part of our lives only in the last 7-8 years. And how much of a difference have they made!

Put it this way: how many 27-year-olds in previous decades would, with complete conviction, have been able to tell 20-year-olds "It was so, so different in my time"?


  1. Could not agree more! Nowadays a twenty year gap is almost three generations, not one! Tho am not sure if the parents of mumbai are up in the arms in a similar fashion?

  2. Yes, I cannot come to terms with the fact that am so no with-it especially those who are closer to my age. Probably just missed every technological advance narrowly--cells, Net, MMS etc.

    Can't even grasp MP3, DVD--sigh :(

  3. "The phone, in one corner of the spacious hall, was an archaic instrument once used by Graham Bell to contact his assistant in the next room; one spoke into the upper mouthpiece and then quickly put one’s ear to the same part of the instrument."

    I'm guessing St Columba's, Delhi. right? :-)
    There cant be two schools in this country with a phone like that...

  4. Oh yes! Well-guessed - unless of course you're someone I know. If not, which batch? I'm curious to know whether things have changed at all in Ye Aulde Alma Mater.

    J: from what I've heard, the generation gap tends to be less in Mumbai - cooler parents etc, is that true?

  5. Umm.
    I'm not 20 yet. I used the bus throughout my time at school (as did most other people), had a cellphone for the last two years of school but only ever TOOK it to school once when I had a doctor's appointment. We're not all that bad!

    St. Columba's...I would go there once a year for the quiz. (Still do, as audience). Good times...

  6. this is Transient Generation Effect